Designing Effective Adult Learning Experiences

Post your thoughts on how the self-directed nature of adults could be conducive or detrimental to a particular type of learning experience.

According to Lowry “self-directed learning…suggests that the locus of control in learning lies with the adult learner” (as cited in Cercone, 2008, p. 148).  “Characteristics of self-directed learners include independence, willingness to take initiative, persistence in learning, self-discipline, self-confidence, and the desire to learn more. They are able to organize time, develop plans for completion, enjoy learning, and remain goal oriented” (Cercone, 2008, p. 148).  These characteristics are all beneficial in any learning environment, face-to-face or online.  However, some characteristics such as independence, initiative, self-confidence and aptitude for sourcing information, could be misconstrued or misperceived as difficult, rebellious, defiant or challenging to authority in a traditional or more behaviorist “teacher-led” learning environment.  Fortunately, “researchers now realize that self-directed learning is worthwhile… and educators should encourage this type of learning the formal classroom” (Cercone, 2008, p. 148).  Ideally, according to top-down theory, this information will diffuse throughout education and become commonplace; however, traditional classroom culture and norms are difficult to overcome due to a myriad of organizational, political, educational, and individual complexities.

Identify any challenges or benefits you have faced as an adult learner.

As an adult learner, I face many of the same challenges as other adults: complexities “due to career, family, and other personal choices” (Cercone, 2008, p. 139).  For instance, my living environment is atypical because I live with three generations of males (my father-64, my husband-46, and my son-8).  Additionally, some of my challenges are also benefits.  For example, although my father is disabled and unable to work, he is very helpful to the family (helping my son Gabriel to and from school, cub scouts, grocery shopping, and meal preparations).  Although my husband works two jobs (courier for FedEx and a DJ) to support our family, often getting home late or working on the weekend, it affords me the opportunity to go to school for a year without working.  Although my entire family has ADHD (father, sister, myself, son, and nieces), it has created a family dynamic of understanding and support.

Offer at least two suggestions for how you might design learning experiences geared toward the lifestyle and learning preferences of the adult learner.

A concise summary of distinguishing characteristics (adult learners v. younger learners) is provided in “Teaching in the Lifelong Learning Sector”:

  • Adult learners need to know why they are learning particular things.
  • Adult self-concept – they need to perceive themselves as self-directed and responsible for their own decisions.
  • Adult learners have a wide variety of experience which represents a rich resource for learners and teachers. They do, however, need to recognise bias and subjectivity in their opinions and experiences.
  • Adults have readiness to learn those things which will help them to deal with real-life situations.
  • Adults are motivated to learn things which are of interest or important to them.  This, and their readiness to learn, implies that adults have intrinsic motivations to learn. (Scales, 2008, p. 81)

A far more detailed summary of adult characteristics and recommendations are listed in the course materials.  Most impressive to me was the “connection” I was able to make between Walden’s online learning program and the recommendations provided by the course materials. I personally identified nine of the recommendations for adult learners included in the Walden program to just the third characteristic, identified as “adults need to be actively involved in the learning process” (Cercone, 2008, p. 154).  Several examples include:  “(e) make regular announcements or updates,” (i) “require learners to synthesize and problem solve, using the information in new ways,” (m) “provide students with multiple resources of information that include differing viewpoints from diverse authors,” (p) “use hyperlinks to allow students to develop their own path,” and “incorporate text signals such as … ‘proceed to lesson six’” (Cercone, 2008, p. 154-155).  To be perfectly honest, Walden’s program incorporated the vast majority of the recommendations provided.

There are so many recommendations I would incorporate it is difficult to choose just a few; however, in addition to what I have previously mentioned, some basics would include:

“Use questioning techniques to provoke thinking, stimulate recall, and challenge beliefs” (Cercone, 2008, p. 156).  This recommendation describes our discussion prompts fairly well.

“Allow the learner to voice his or her own opinion and treat him or her as equal in the learning process” (Cercone, 2008, p. 158).

I am also a big fan of critical self-reflection, which is in alignment with the listed adult characteristic “12. Adults need to self-reflect on the learning process and be given support for transformational learning” (Cercone, 2008, p. 159).  To wit, I would necessarily incorporate:

“a. Provide a place in the course to discuss the process of learning online which may include thoughts on how they are managing in the online course” (Cercone, 2008, p. 159).  Examples include Walden’s Student Lounge and Student e-mail.

“b. Allow students to … plan action strategies and exchange of knowledge and skills for effective and efficient online learning” (Cercone, 2008, p. 159).  An example would be Walden’s Q&A room, where many of the cohorts have exchanged links and ideas and Walden’s document sharing feature.

“c. Provide ways for learners to engage in metacognitive reflection. Students may benefit from the use of think logs, reflective journals, and group discussions within a cooperative learning setting” (Cercone, 2008, p. 159).  Examples from Walden include our course reflections, application assignments, blogs and discussions.

Finally, in “Adult Learning Theory for the Twenty-First Century” Merriam states that there is a “growing understanding that adult learning is a multidimensional and phenomenon” (Merriam, 2008, p. 98).  The final sentence reflects the potential future for adult learning, “we need only attend to our own mind, body, spirit, and emotions and the sociocultural and material context in which we ourselves learn to recognize the potential of this expanded vision for our adult learners” (Merriam, 2008, p. 98).  I was so intrigued I actually ordered the book on Amazon!  Another example of the adult characteristic “self-directed.”


Cercone, K. (2008). Characteristics of adult learners with implications for online learning design. AACE Journal, 16(2), 137-159. Retrieved from

Merriam, S. B. (2008). Adult Learning for the Twenty-First Century. In Third Update on Adult Learning Theory (pp. 93-98). doi: 10.1002/ace

Scales, P. (2008). Learning Theories. In Teaching in the lifelong learning sector (pp. 57-85). Retrieved from


2 thoughts on “Designing Effective Adult Learning Experiences

  1. Pingback: Bringing it All Together | Richard Nunnally

  2. Pingback: Refection on Learning Theories and Instruction | Richard Nunnally

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